Category Archives: Commentary

Internalism vs Externalism in the History of Medicine

The other day I was reading a book review in the H-Sci-Med-Tech listserv. In it, Dagomar DeGroot, writing about Black Holes: A Very Short Introduction by Katherine Blundell (Oxford, 2016), introduces a nomenclature that is new to me, viz.:

Blundell delves deeper into the history of science… since black holes straddle the boundaries between Newtonian, relativistic, and quantum physics. In a sense, the history of scientific thinking about black holes—or “dark stars,” as a few precocious scholars imagined them in the eighteenth century—mirrors the history of the related disciplines of physics and cosmology. Blundell occasionally suggests links between broader social developments and the history of science, but she concentrates on an internalist summary of the personal breakthroughs of standout scientists. (Bolding mine – TLS)

Until the 1960s, medical history was pretty much the domain of medical doctors. Often classically educated (with Greek and Latin), they could read such ancients as Aristotle, Hippocrates (“the Hippocratic corpus”) and Galen and could bring the wisdom of these masters to the modern era. Physician-written historiography then was largely a “we stand upon the shoulders of giants” enterprise – stories of brilliant or hard-working doctors who advanced the art and science for the benefit of, but without reference to, mankind in the non-medical world. This is “internalist” history.

My research of the Internalist-Externalist debate (thank you Google) brought me to Mary Lindemann’s Introduction in Medicine and Society in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 1999). In it, she lays out very nicely the shift in historiography that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s as PhD historians gradually supplanted MDs in the writing of medical history in the west. Among others, she cites what are now referred to as post-modernists (Foucault is mentioned) and their criticism of “whiggish” history and she cites MD / PhD American Association for the History of Medicine President George Rosen’s 1967 call for a redefinition of “the time, matter and manner” of medical history. This redefinition has taken pretty much a “social history of medicine” bent that has emphasized the effect of society on “medicine” – think, for instance of the activist movement that pushed the medical establishment to more quickly find effective AIDS treatments, or the effect of “medicine” on society – think of the change of medical opinion and resulting public policy regarding anti-smoking campaigns.

While I understand the externalist argument as presented, my sympathy still lies with the tight medico-scientific spirit and logic that internalist medical history depends upon and promotes: the search for excellence and progress (with admitted human foibles and flaws included) that motivated and brilliant practitioners create. Internalist history, for this physician, is interesting, compelling and often inspiring. Somehow, the AAHM mantra that “physicians create the history and historians chronicle it” doesn’t quite work: something inevitably gets lost in the translation.

(C)2018 Thomas L Snyder


What I’m Reading Now – Early 19th Century Maritime Medicine and Surgery

I belong to the 1805 Club, a British outfit established to promote and preserve the history of the Royal Navy in Admiral Lord Nelson’s time, or as their website puts it, “Conserving Memorials to Georgian Naval Heroes”. I was pressed into the Club by their North America “secretary” John Rodgaard, Captain, U.S. Navy (Ret.), naval historian and fellow Naval Order Companion.

Here on the west coast, the Club sponsors an annual Glorious First Of June luncheon at a posh private club in San Jose, California. The event is a largely old white guy affair, infused with the bonhomie one would expect when a bunch of (mostly) navy veterans get together. After preprandial libations, we break bread together over truly gourmet preparations, and once fully sated, we are treated to a talk of interest and relevance to the Club’s mission.

After this year’s event the word went out, “We’re looking for speakers”, and ever one to take a challenge, I volunteered to talk about naval medicine and surgery in Nelson’s Navy for the 2019 luncheon. To my minimal surprise, the offer was quickly accepted by Steve Walwyn, our local organizer. So now starts the preparation work.

Quite providentially, it turns out, the luncheon gift handed me at this year’s event was Poxed & Scurvied – The Story Of Sickness and Health at Sea by Kevin Brown (Seaforth Publishing, 2011). I’ve already learned from the book’s early chapters that in some ways the art and science of maritime health care were more advanced than I’d previously thought.

Another treasure from my own library – Amazon reminded me that I bought it in 2008 when I did a search there – is Nelson’s Surgeon – William Beatty, Naval Medicine, and the Battle Of Trafalgar by Laurence Brockliss, M. John Cardwell, and Michael Moss (Oxford University Press 2005, paperback 2008). The book provides a good narrative on the naval life of medical men of the era, and absolutely riveting descriptions of combat surgery in the cockpits of British men of war.

It goes without saying that I will also be consulting volume three (“1714-1815”) of J. J. Keevil’s (volumes 1 & 2), Christopher Lloyd’s and Jack L. S. Coulter’s epic four volume Medicine and the [Royal] Navy – 1200-1900 (Livingstone, 1961 for volume 3).

A trailer for the 2003 movie Master and Commander: The Far Side Of the World (based on the Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series of novels about a dashing Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey [Russell Crowe] and his surgeon / spy friend Stephen Maturin [Paul Bethany]) has an excellent depiction of shipboard amputations, and I’ve also found a dramatic video of the effect of cannonballs upon the sides (and insides) of wooden ships. Splinter wounds, often vicious and bloody and carrying a risk of tetanus, were the most common combat injuries of 18th and 19th century naval warfare. Any other source recommendations?

My Glorious First Of June interlocutor said of my proposed presentation, “The bloodier the better!” As a surgeon, I have no problem with this, but I don’t know–how much gore would you want to see right after a sumptuous luncheon?

The Society for the History of Navy Medicine

Early in my post-retirement career as amateur historian, I made regular trips to the east coast to research the history of the Navy’s first hospital on the west coast, at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, across the Napa River from my Vallejo, California home. These trips inevitably led me to Navy medicine’s historical office, with its collection of materials from almost all American Naval facilities. During one of those visits, the historian there, Andre’ Sobocinski said, “You know, there are many people like you who have an interest in the history of navy / maritime medicine, but there is no organization that supports their work. What we need is some sort of scholarly society for this purpose.”

A year later, in 2006, The Society for the History of Navy Medicine was launched. With Andre’s help in getting names and addresses, we grew the Society to around 170 members from around the world. By charging modest voluntary dues ($20 a year at the time), we built a large enough treasury to afford generous travel grants for graduate / professional students giving papers at our academic panels (at AMSUS, AAHM, Naval Academy McMullen, NASOH), a research grant program, and, recently under Executive Director Professor Annette Finley-Croswhite, the biennial Harry D Langley Book Prize in the History of Maritime Medicine.

I stepped down as (volunteer) Executive Director in 2013, after nearly eight years on the job. Mr Jim Dolbow served for one year and then Professor Finley-Croswhite stepped up to lead the Society for the past four years. As I mentioned, Professor Finley-Croswhite led us to partner with the North American Society for Oceanic History for our most recent two academic panels, she launched our book prize and otherwise enhanced the status of the enterprise by her own luminous academic reputation and energy. Professional and family demands have required Annette to step down and so I’ve taken the mantle again. (We’ve learned that it’s really hard to recruit volunteers to lead organizations! If you know of a retired Navy medical type who has the fire in the belly for promoting the history of maritime / navy medicine, let me know.)

My immediate goals for the Society are to grow the membership and to build our finances. If you know people who work in the history of maritime medicine, or who like to support such efforts, steer them to our website.

If you’re interested in joining the Society, go to its Membership page.

©2018 Thomas L Snyder

A Unique History of Medicine Experience – the American Osler Society

I’ve just attended the American Osler Society meeting, this year at the University of Pittsburgh. While the Society celebrates the life, career and philosophy of Sir William Osler*, the meeting is very much a history of medicine undertaking, but with an interesting twist: physicians or medical students gave virtually all of the papers.

Why is this unique? In the past, MDs represented the vast bulk of people undertaking the research and study necessary to write the history of the profession. Many of these men§ (as was the case then) – especially the Europeans – were educated in the Classics, and could read the Greek and Latin of Plato, Aristotle, Galen and the other ancients. Perhaps partly as a result of the loss of the classical languages among physicians, we began to see PhD historians enter the field starting in the 1970s. The American Association for the History of Medicine, historically dominated by physicians, is now made up of roughly a 50-50 mix of PhDs and MDs; and while dominated by the prior, it’s unofficial line is, “the PhDs bring historical skills and physicians provide verisimilitude” to the organization.

With the arrival of professional historians, the thrust in medical history shifted away from the unique character of Medicine with its “clinical” emphasis on the care of patients, or the advancement of this art by our brilliant or dedicated or inspired predecessors. Now the articles being published in medical history journals bear such titles as “The Cowpox Controversy: Memory and the Politics of Public Health in Cuba”^ or “Unpalatable Truths: Food and Drink as Medicine in Colonial British India”#

Medical historian and biographer Barron H Lerner puts it this way:

One of the enduring topics in the history of medicine—and at meetings for the American Association for the History of Medicine—is that of great doctor history. Most historians agree that the early historiography of medicine was dominated by this genre: books and articles often written by physicians who chronicled and praised the careers of earlier physicians, some of whom had been their professors.

Things changed dramatically beginning in the 1970s, however, when professionally trained historians, many with Ph.D. degrees, brought the new “social history” to the history of medicine. These scholars argued that the old history—with its “Whiggish” emphasis on the accomplishments of largely male physicians and medical progress—ignored not only patients but gender, race, class, and unethical behaviors on the part of the medical profession. Not a few AAHM Clinician-Historian breakfasts have debated the value and validity of these two competing approaches to understanding medicine’s past.+

Now, back to the American Osler Society meeting. Held over two and a half days, the sessions featured papers with such titles as, “William Osler and his Contributions to the Field of Dermatology” and “Thomas E Starzl: Liver Transplant Pioneer”. That’s not to say medical ethics was ignored – “The Case of the Purloined Heart: Michael E DeBakey, Denton A Cooley and the Implantation of the First Total Artificial Heart” told the story of how Cooley “stole” an artificial heart from the DeBakey team and in a stealthy midnight surgery, installed it in a human patient. Nor did social history get short shrift – “Auschwitz Inmates Saving Lives in 2017: Nazi Medicine in Modern Medical Practice” caught our attention. The best paper of all, given by Yale medical student Joongyu Daniel Song, was an exceptionally erudite and mature consideration of “The Hellenism of William Osler and the New Religion Of Medicine”, in which the author describes Osler’s attempt to find a secular replacement for the Christian moral guide for medicine – and human endeavor in general – that was in decline as a result of the enlightenment and of such intellectual achievements as Darwin’s “Origin Of Species”.

But still, there was lots of “famous doctor” history of medicine here. With its emphasis on the people who advanced the art and science of medicine, the meeting felt just right to this physician.

* Sir William Osler (Oh-zler) was born in rural northern Canada and educated at the University of Toronto and McGill University. After postgraduate study in Europe, he taught briefly at Toronto before joining the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. He was invited to be the founding Physician in Chief of Johns Hopkins Medical School. He taught there and revolutionized medical education by emphasizing bedside teaching. He wrote a textbook of Internal Medicine that went through several editions during his lifetime and beyond. In 1905, he became Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford, a post he held until his death from pneumonia in 1919. He is revered in western medicine as the father of modern, evidence-based medicine, but also as the very model of the humanist physician. Classically educated, he had an abiding interest in medical history, and he frequently quoted the ancients in his medical writing.

§ The names Owsei Temkin (Russian born, German educated, but taught at Johns Hopkins), Henry Sigerist (Swiss German, also at Johns Hopkins), and Fielding H Garrison (Johns Hopkins early in his career, but made his name in the Army) spring immediately to mind.

^ Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Volume 92, Number 1, Spring 2018.

# Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Volume 73, Issue 2, 1 April 2018.

+ The 2018 Fielding Garrison Lecture for the American Association for the History of Medicine, (accessed 18 May 2018).

©️2018 Thomas L Snyder

Mare Island Naval Cemetery and H.R. 5588

Mare Island, located in the north east end of San Francisco Bay, was the home of the Navy’s first west coast ship yard, founded by then-Commander David Farragut in 1854. Two years later, Farragut supervised the first burial in what would become the Mare Island Naval Cemetery. When the Naval Hospital opened in 1871, responsibility for maintaining the cemetery fell to its commander (presumably on the theory that “if you can’t cure them, you’re still responsible for them”). This system of cemetery management lasted until the Mare Island Naval Hospital closed in 1957, after which, presumably the shipyard commander took on that task.

When the Navy Yard closed in 1996, the City of Vallejo became the Cemetery’s caretaker. But the City fell on hard times, largely because the single-industry town saw about a quarter of a billion dollars a year disappear from the local economy overnight. Bankruptcy ensued, and along with it, neglect of the Cemetery, already a victim of lost interest and other priorities. The result, a derelict resting place for over 200 sailors (including 3 Medal of Honor awardees) and their families (including the daughter of Francis Scott Key).

Long subject of veterans’ complaints of “national disgrace”, attention to the situation has been growing, largely due to the efforts of a local veteran, COL Nestor Aliga, USA (Ret.), who has generated significant publicity for the cemetery. Local Congressman Mike Thompson (D-CA), a Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart awardee, has taken notice and recently introduced H.R. 5588, which would direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to arrange for a transfer of the Cemetery from City ownership to that of the Veterans Administration. City officials have declared their readiness (eagerness, really) to effect this change, and California legislators have gone on record in support of the move. Local veterans are now writing California Senators Feinstein and Harris to encourage their introduction of a similar Bill in the Senate.

I encourage my readers to write their Congressional representatives to urge their co-sponsorship and / or support of H.R. 5588. A similar writing campaign to Senators will be forthcoming.

“STEAM” Education – What’s the Place for History?

Last month I received the Spring number of my college’s magazine. The cover features a white-coated cartoon figure accompanied by a color-burst “Superheroes of STEM”:


As you might imagine, the article celebrates some college professors, teachers of STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) as heroes of the modern educational enterprise: they are helping train the people our country needs looking forward in a world of economic competition driven by technological inventiveness.

But then the author veers  to a newer educational acronym, STEAM, which, she points out, adds “Art” (or, in my preferred formulation, “the Arts”) to the educational mix. Here, the argument goes, is where we open up the technological world to who might be referred to as “soft science” people. Art / the Arts adds a creative element to the scientific enterprise.

There’s a great debate going on in higher education now, between the STEMers and the STEAMers. Anne Jolly, an award winning educator and STEAM advocate puts the debate this way(1): The former argue that adding the “A” dilutes a necessary emphasis on the hard sciences so necessary they believe for our successful competition in the world marketplace of ideas and products. “How can you focus on other subjects (such as art) without losing the mission of STEM or watering down its primary purpose?” For the STEAMer, view, Jolly quotes Ruth Catchen, a STEAM advocate from Colorado, to wit, “the arts are a great learning tool and can serve as an on-ramp to STEM for underrepresented students. Engaging students’ strengths using art activities increases motivation and the probability of STEM success. She views art as a way of offering more diverse learning opportunities and greater access to STEM for all types of learners”. Jolly sums up, “The purpose of STEAM should not be so much to teach art but to apply art in real situations. Applied knowledge leads to deeper learning.”

That’s all well and good, but where do the liberal arts – most especially history – come into this formulation? It’s a question to which I could find few answers in a Google inquiry. But one stood out, an article in The Conversation (2) by Muhammad H Zaman, a professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University. He writes that today’s students have sparse knowledge “about the giants upon whose shoulders we all stand”, but that educational research shows that these same students are more likely to develop interest in pursuing scientific education as a result of learning the narratives of science and technology pioneers.  He adds that studies suggest “context and history play a strong role in connecting science and engineering theory with practice.”

Professor Zaman goes on to show that these historical narratives teach students that the scientific quest is often one of disappointment and failure, that persistence in the face of adversity often yields success. “Indeed, the discussion of struggles, obstacles, failures and persistence can lead to significant academic improvement of students, particularly for those who may be facing personal or financial difficulties or feeling discouraged by previous instructors and mentors”, he adds.

When I became a partner in The Permanente Medical Group (the physician group that provides medical services to the members of the Kaiser-Permanente Healthcare Program in northern California), we were taught the history of the organization. This history emphasized its early struggles when organized medicine opposed the program because of its philosophy of prepaid health care and salaried physicians. This history, with its stories of the struggles overcome by the founding physicians motivated me to become a better physician myself.

So finally, we see a role and a value for history in a STEM / STEAM environment, and in life-in-general! Taken many millions of times over, the endeavors of people motivated by knowledge of the past can and will lead to a better world.

(1) (accessed 31 May 2018).

(2) (accessed 10 June 2018).

©2018 Thomas L Snyder

The Influence of the Spanish Influenza Upon U.S. Fleet Operations in European Waters, Part 2

A couple of weeks ago, I posted Part 1 of this two part series which is a paper I presented at a recent Army sponsored Symposium on the Medical History of World War I. Held at Fort Sam Houston, Texas and mounted by the Army Medical Department historians over a two day period, the Symposium featured a broad array of papers on a wide range of medical historical topics. It was one of the best meetings I’ve ever attended. Bravo Zulu to Sanders Marble and his San Antonio associates!

And now, Part 2.

Submarines. Seven American “L” boats were stationed on the south Irish coast to patrol for U-boats as they transited south and west of Ireland and later, along the British and western French coasts. Four older and smaller “K” boats and one “E” boat were homeported in the Azores. The machinery in these latter vessels proved to be so unreliable that the boats virtually never put to sea; they played no role in the anti-U boat effort, though Rose argues for a deterrent effect.[1]. In about half a year of operations, American boats, despite regular patrolling, made few contacts and no kills. No mention of influenza appears in the submariners’ operational reports.[2]

Cruiser and Transport Service. Undoubtedly the most significant American naval and maritime contribution to the Allied war effort was the convoy system. As many as twenty four cruisers, in addition to the destroyers reported above, escorted some 45 American troopships and innumerable Allied and neutral commercial vessels in their trips back and forth across the Atlantic. Vice Admiral Albert Gleaves, USN, Commander of the Cruiser and Transport Service mentions the influenza in his history of the Service, mainly to record the number of troops who got sick on the ships, but he makes no mention of any impact on operations.[3] Only once does influenza appear in operational reports from the Cruiser and Transport Service, and that was to transmit an instruction from the Commander, U.S. Navy Forces in France concerning the early transfer of influenza patients to nearby Naval Hospitals.[4] On the other hand, conditions aboard the troopships in seemed dire. On 2 October, Sims wrote to OpNav, “Thompson, Medical Aide, after consultation with General Winter, Chief Surgeon, London Headquarters US Army, reports to me that the health conditions on arrival transports during last week was serious. Over 200 deaths from Influenza-Pneumonia and about 3,000 sick reported. Medical sides [sic; cites?] opinion overcrowding of troops one important cause of spread of contagion.”[5] The troops had caught the virus in training camps, where it spread readily among soldiers living crowded in barracks and being stressed by the rigors of military training. While an occasional transport experienced delay in movement due to influenza amongst her crew[6], no mention is made of operational interruptions due to influenza among the cruisermen.

Battleships. In early December 1917, RADM Hugh Rodman, USN in Command of Battleship Division Nine arrived in British waters with his coal burning dreadnoughts Delaware, Florida, Wyoming and New York. While intended to supplement the British Grand Fleet (as the 6th Battle Squadron) at Scapa Flow in a hoped for decisive battle with the German Hochseeflotte. their crews in actuality spent most of their time engaged in gunnery drills and convoy escort duty. Three more Battleships – Oklahoma, Nevada  and a bit later, Utah – Battleship Division Six – arrived at Berehaven on the Irish coast in August 1918. Their job was to protect iron ore convoys between Scandinavia and Britain against German surface raiders. The first reports of influenza from both American Divisions are dated 26 October. From Battleship Division Six, “During the early part of the week the epidemic of influenza reached rather serious proportions. At the present time the situation is much improved. Deaths from pneumonia during the week have been as follows: UTAH 4, NEVADA 7, OKLAHOMA 4. Admissions to the sick list have been made freely and all practicable precautions taken to limit the spread of disease.” From Battleship Division Nine, “Influenza is epidemic in the GRAND FLEET; the ARKANSAS with over 230 cases, and the WYOMING with less than 10 are in strict quarantine. To date it is of a mild form. Every precaution is being taken to prevent and eradicate it. There is every reason to believe that the ARKANSAS became infected by quartering a draft of men on her, which came from the [troopship] LEVIATHAN, a badly infected ship. These men were … were accommodated on the ARKANSAS, pending the departure of the vessel in which they were to take passage.”[7]

Jerry W. Jones, in his history of U.S. Battleship Operations in World War I[8] notes that the British Grand Fleet was severely affected by the epidemic. He quotes LT John McCrea, aboard the USS New York, “…had the German fleet come out to do battle during the epidemic, many ships of the Grand Fleet would not have been able to give an account of themselves.” Certainly Arkansas, with nearly a quarter of her crew on the sick list at the peak of her epidemic, would have been hard pressed to contribute effectively to any large fleet operation. Fortunately, crewmembers in the German fleet were war tired, and German Vice Admiral Scheer’s planned naval Götterdämerung against the Grand Fleet was aborted by mutiny among his crewmembers in late October.


The most significant contribution of American naval forces to the Allied war effort was its participation in the anti-submarine campaign in its many iterations. Just what was the impact of the Spanish influenza on these activities? The answer is told in the tonnage sunk statistics for the time. Sims, in his history of the naval war effort lists the monthly tonnage sunk from February 1917 through October 1918. These show that sinkings began to decrease markedly in the last quarter of 1917, a decrease that continued into the next year. Most instructive to our consideration are the tons of shipping (British, Allied and neutral merchants and fishing vessels) sunk in 1918 (see graph 1).[9]

Screenshot (19)

Graph 1

Notice the jump in August. It is virtually impossible to attribute this jump solely to the illness that paralyzed NAS St Trojan. In fact, Navy Surgeon General William C Braisted stated that the main onslaught of influenza among our Atlantic naval forces hit in mid-to-late September, that is, in the month following the surge in sinkings.[10] In fact, the downward trend resumed during the month of highest contagion.

Convoy activity similarly shows that the epidemic in September and October did not result in a decrease in sailings. In fact, ship departures (displayed in Graph 2) showed a continuing increase through the period of contagion.

Screenshot (20)

Graph 2


This report really ends up looking like a scientific paper: I started with a thesis – the Spanish influenza had an adverse influence upon U.S. Navy operations in support of the Allied efforts against the Central Powers in World War I. I then did the “experiment” – a search of relevant historical works and official reports of operations in, under and over European waters. I collected and analyzed the data. Result: the Spanish influenza had no operationally significant adverse influence upon U.S. Navy operations in European waters during World War I. My thesis is disproven.

A Cautionary Afterthought

In some units, a significant proportion of U.S. Navy personnel fell ill at some point during the period of contagion (August through October 1918). That operations were not significantly impacted is at least partly because there was a large enough pool of manpower available to supplement crews where necessary and because larger ships were generously crewed. In addition, the war appeared to be winding down as victory in the land war was clearly in view. Moreover, the enemy’s forces were suffering the same contagion – as Gina Kolata  put it, “…the Germans were at least as devastated…” as were Allied armies[11], and the German Navy was in the throes of the mutinous impulses mentioned above.

But what of today? In an online survey of military and civilian writing on the risks of bioterrorism and biowarfare, I found that the entire conversation appears to be around ameliorization of risk (prevention / immunization), training of first responders, diagnosis and treatment. Other than for first responders and the provision of special medical expertise, manning issues are not mentioned at all. We know well that both simple and sophisticated biotechnologies and increasingly sophisticated weaponization techniques, as well as the knowledge to create and apply them, are readily available to both state and non-state actors.  As a result, our military forces face potential exposure to “designer” agents carefully crafted to disable or kill large numbers. In the meanwhile, in an age of cost constraints and rising personnel costs, our military, and in particular our navy, seems to have instituted manning policies and equipment design based on a “minimum numbers necessary” approach. Given the increasing risk of the use of biological weapons in time of war, it would be wise to put an “epidemic manning surge” – that is, having more people than “mission-necessary” in place as back-ups –  into our force planning, lest critical war fighting capability be paralyzed when epidemic strikes.

[1] Lisle, op. cit. P 197.

[2] NARA, RG 45, ON-Submarines-Submarine divisions 3-6; Operation Reports. Entry 520 I-18, Box 420 of 1630.

[3] Gleaves, Vice Admiral Albert: A History of the Transport Service – Adventures and Experiences of United States Transports and Cruisers in the World War (New York, George H Doran Company, 1921), p190, 191),, accessed 15 March 2018.

[4] NARA, RG 45, CR-Cruiser & Transport Service 9/18-6/19, Entry 520 I-18 Box 88 of 1630, Folder CR-Cruiser and Transport Service October 1918 Folder 2, 4 October 1918

[5] NARA, RG 45, IL 6104, K-20 (in pencil, “October 2, 1918”), From: Sims To: OpNav 6104

[6] NARA, RG 45, Box 34 of 1630, File CE Destroyer Escorts 9, DUMMY Oct 24 1918, Class 3, Part 2 CE CO (pencil crossed out and “CU” entered), From Commanding Officer, S/S RE D’ITALIA To: Commander, Naval Forces, Brest, France, Subject: S.S. RE D’ITALIA unprotected in submarine waters; report on Ship unable to maintain position in convoy owing to so many of her crew having influenza

[7] NARA, RG 45, Box 632 pf 1630, Folder November 1918 4, REPORTS FROM BATTLESHIP DIVISION

[8] Jones, Jerry, W.: U.S. Battleship Operations in World War I (Copyright Jerry W. Jones; Published, Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1968)

[9] Sims, op. cit., Appendix VIII, Monthly Losses Since February 1917, From Enemy Action

[10] Secretary of the Navy: Annual Reports of the Navy Department for the Fiscal Year 1919 (Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, report of), (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1920), p2438ff,;view=1up;seq=2503, accessed 13 March 2018.

[11] Kolata, op. Cit., p50

©2018 Thomas L Snyder

The Influence of the Spanish Influenza Upon U.S. Fleet Operations in European Waters, Part 1

Recently, I had opportunity to give a paper at an Army-sponsored Medical History of World War I symposium in San Antonio. The meeting was superb: a two day affair with dual (“competing”) sessions both days. Excellent papers across a wide spectrum of study, given both by historians and by physicians. Here is the first of two parts of my paper, entitled, “The Influence of the Spanish Influenza Upon U.S. Fleet Operations in European Waters”:

In the popular mind (and probably most academic thought as well), the main American contribution to the Allied victory in World War I lies in the 2,000,000 doughboys who helped slug it out with Central Powers armies. As historian Stephen Howarth put it, “Today, imagining Americans in World War I, the doughboys spring at once to mind – young soldiers in their tens of thousands, singing and fighting through the muddy fields of France. Sailors serving under the Stars and Stripes seem scarcely to figure at all.”[1] E. B. Potter, in his authoritative one volume textbook on naval history devotes just two paragraphs of “U.S. [naval] Contributions” in World War I, which briefly describe our convoy operations.[2]


Yet the story is more dramatic that the usual depictions would have it. Rear Admiral William Sims arrived in London on 9 April 1917 to study the naval war. While he was in transit, the United States declared war on Germany. As a result, Sims transitioned from naval observer to commander, as Vice Admiral, of the American naval effort. Immediately upon his arrival, Sims discovered that the British situation was precarious. German unrestricted submarine warfare was sinking 600,000 to 800,000 tons of merchant shipping every month. The British Admiralty predicted that if a solution to the submarine threat weren’t found, and quickly, Britain, facing starvation, would have to sue for peace by November. The solution, arrived at despite stout Admiralty resistance, turned out to be the convoy system. This called for destroyers (lots of them), cruisers and aircraft (both heavier than air and lighter than air) to provide antisubmarine escort for groups of ships – merchant transports, hospital ships and troopships –  traversing submarine-infested waters in the Atlantic and the approaches to Britain, and in the Mediterranean. American destroyers played a significant role in that part of the anti-submarine effort by seeking out U-boats as they approached to attack convoys and bombarding them with depth charges.

Other anti-submarine activities undertaken by American naval elements included:

  • Laying 50,000 of a 70,000-mine barrage in the North Sea to interfere with U boat passage from their pens along the Belgian coast to the North Sea and the Atlantic;
  • “Chasing” submarines with about 140 quickly produced wooden submarine chasers. These 120 foot boats, officered largely by naval reservists from colleges and universities and armed with depth charges, gradually developed successful tactics in using hydrophones to identify, locate and attack the enemy submerged in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean;
  • Identifying and attacking submarines from the air. Naval and marine aviators, based on the French and Irish coasts, hunted submarines, then bombed them or marked them with smoke bombs so destroyers or subchasers could attack with depth charges;
  • Pursuing U boats from under the surface. American submarines based on the Irish coast performed both escort and submarine hunting missions.

In addition, four battleships were sent to join the British Grand Fleet as the Sixth Battle Squadron to strengthen the Grand Fleet in event of another Mahanian grand battle against the German High Seas Fleet.[3] Later on, another Battleship division was sent to supplement convoy operations.[4]

Finally, and very importantly American navy and commercial ships carried about 46%[5] of those 2,000,000 doughboys, and vast amounts of food, supplies and war materiel to Britain and to the war effort in Europe itself.

Methods and Materials

In preparing to write this paper, I was struck by the absence of any mention of the influenza in any of the broad naval histories I consulted. Lisle A Rose, in his one volume history “America’s Sailors in the Great War”[6] writes only about individual sailors’ afflictions with the disease. Vice Admiral Sims similarly ignored the flu as did Hugh Rodman, the battleship commander.[7] I attributed this lack of information to the usual bias of military figures and historians to emphasize military operations to the exclusion of such “peripheral” – though often decisive – matters as logistics or contagion. Even writers about the epidemic give short shrift to naval operations: Gina Kolata only briefly mentions the Navy in her book on the flu, and John M Barry ignores impact of the influenza upon sailors entirely.[8],[9]

In order to correct this oversight, I consulted relevant naval histories and actual operational correspondence for U.S. Naval Forces Operating in European Waters for this paper.[10] I will review each aspect of the naval antisubmarine effort in the order laid out above.


Destroyers. As for the Destroyers performing convoy escort duties, just one mention of influenza appears, on 22 October 1918: “The Influenza situation is the occasion for some worry, but, really, compared to other organizations, I think we have been rather fortunate. I have found it necessary to use the hotel temporarily for our influenza cases…”[11]

Minelayers. Scant mention of the epidemic is found in reports from the Minelaying Squadron[12]. Commander Mine Force, in his Weekly Report of Operations for the week ending November 2 1918 wrote, “Very few cases of this disease have occurred… among the ships of the Mine Force. In fact the Naval Forces in this section have been remarkably free from this disease, considering the fact that it is prevalent among the civil population in this vicinity.” A week later, he wrote, “The epidemic of influenza among out [sic – “our”?] forces … has apparently disappeared, there having been no cases since 8 November 1918. A total of 50 percent of this detachment have been ill with influenza and transferred to Base Hospital Number Two, in order that they might receive proper care, and in order to prevent the spread of this disease as much as possible.” He made no mention of impact on minelaying operations.[13] Captain Reginald R Belknap, the Minelaying Squadron Commander mentioned the flu but once in his history of American World War I minelaying operations in which he indicated that 113 of the 427 man crew of the squadron flagship, USS San Francisco (C-5) fell ill as the ship prepared to leave British waters after the Armistice.[14] In a report dated 1 November 1918, the Commander of the Sixth Minesweeper Squadron, based in Ireland, reported that one boat (of about 30 in the squadron) was delayed in undertaking a mission because her crew had to transfer one of her officers to a local hospital, and that another did not leave for operations at all for three days “owing to sickness in the crew”.[15]

Subchasers. The most authoritative history of the subchaser war effort mentions “flu” but once, and this describes a preventative quarantine of one unit – after the Armistice.[16] That said, some subchaser crews appear to have suffered heavily from the influenza. The squadron of 36 boats based on Corfu, in a message sent on 6 November, just five days before the Armistice, when the subchasers were trying desperately to bottle German and Austrian subs up in the Adriatic Sea after Austria’s departure from the war, wrote in answer to criticisms of one of their hunting missions, “As to discrepancies disclosed in signals, principally in the preambles, due to the epidemic of influenza in the Sub Chaser Detachment a large number of the radio operators with the hunt were substitute operators from the Base…”[17] On 9 November, Commander Subchaser Detachment Three at Queenstown, Ireland reported that “[o]ne unit at Holyhead is reported as unable to operate on account of 35 men on the sick list from influenza. None of these cases is serious, however, and the medical officer states that all present cases should be returned to duty within a few days.”[18] None of this illness, however, appears to have impacted the subchasers’ performance of their mission to any degree whatever.

Naval Aviation. Naval aviation was in its infancy when the U.S. declared war upon Germany. As a result, American aviators and the sailors who supported them and their aircraft found themselves integrated into French, British, and Italian aviation units where they were trained. Once qualified, the Yanks flew antisubmarine and convoy escort missions and bombed German submarine bases and other targets using mostly Allied equipment. It was only in the late stages of the war that wholly American units were stood up, with American-made aircraft.[19]Neither Rose nor an official online history of naval aviation[20] mention the influenza in aviation units, nor did any of the intel briefings given to Sims preparatory to the daily Admiralty meetings in London.[21] Geoffrey L Rossano, in his comprehensive history of naval aviation mentions influenza 12 times, 3 of them substantive. Of Naval Air Station Dunkirk, he notes that during the period 21 October to 5 November, “as much as 90 percent of the base complement [were] affected more or less seriously. The weakened men spent the period … taking down hangars, cleaning the grounds, and loading trucks and a barge for possible repositioning northward along the coast” in response to the tactical retreat of German forces from coastal areas. The naval air station at St Trojan, on the French Atlantic coast suffered its epidemic at the end of August, “with 6 deaths and 210 men incapacitated to varying degrees. The sickness lasted about three weeks and ‘at times the station was completely unable to carry on operations.’” Naval Air Station Lake Bolsena, Italy experienced a flu outbreak in October, when “flying activities virtually ceased” for a week or two. This was a training base, so this lack of activity would had virtually no impact on the antisubmarine effort being prosecuted in the Mediterranean.[22]

[1] Howarth, Stephen: To Shining Sea – A History of the United States Navy (New York: Random House, 1991)

[2] Potter, E.B., ed.: Sea Power – A Naval History (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1981)

[3] The grand battle of the war, Jutland, was a Mahanian “disaster” in that neither fleet won what Mahan defined as the necessary decisive large-fleet victory. But the British, if fact, had won a strategic victory, because the Hochseeflotte remained bottled up in port until the end of the war.

[4] Most of this is discussed in Sims’s history of the Naval war cited above. The Sixth Battle Squadron was commanded by RADM Hugh Rodman. Battleship operations are detailed in Jones, Jerry W.: U. S. Battleship Operations in World War I (Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1998.)

[5] Rose, Lisle A.: America’s Sailors in the Great War – Seas, Skies, and Submarines (Columbia, Missouri, University of Missouri Press, 2017.), p 100.

[6] Rose, op. cit.

[7] Sims, William Sowden and Burton J Hendrick: The Victory at Sea (ebook verson, Madison & Adams Press, 2017.) Rodman, Rear Admiral Hugh: Yarns of a Kentucky Admiral (Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill, 1928.)

[8] Kolata, Gina: Flu – The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.)

[9] Barry, John M.: The Great Influenza – The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (New York, Viking/Penguin, 2004.)

[10] National Archives and Records Administration (hereafter “NARA”), RG 45, Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, File 1911-1927.

[11] NARA, CE-Destroyer Escorts 9/18 – 11/18, Entry 520 I-18 Box 34 of 1630 – Destroyer Escorts 9, File No 3-978-5 U.S. Naval Base 27, 22 October 1918, to Captain R. H. Leigh, U.S.N. in London.

[12] 10 ships, eight of which were purpose built minelayers, two (including the Flagship, USS San Francisco [C-5]) were nineteenth century protected cruisers converted to minelayers in 1910., accessed 2 March 2018.

[13] NARA, RG 45, TA-Force Commanders General Reports-Vice Admiral Sims Reports, Entry 520 I-18 Box 640 of 1630, Folder TA-Vice Adm. Sims’ General Reports Nov 1918 Folder 5 REPORTS FROM MINE BASE.

[14] Belknap, Reginald Rowan: The Yankee Mining Squadron or Laying the North Sea Mine Barrage (Annapolis, U.S. Naval Institute, 1920, facsimile reprint London, Forgotten Books, 2015.), p 94.

[15] NARA, RG 45. OD-U.S. Subchasers – Operations of 9-12/18 – 1919 Halifax Patrol: Flotilla Attached to Subchasers Entry 520 I-18 Box 388 of 1630 File OD U.S. Subchasers, Operations of November-December, 1918  Folder 3 (in pencil: Force Comm S3466) U.S. NAVAL FORCES OPERATING IN EUROPEAN WATERS SUBCHASER DETACHMENT THREE U.S.S.C. 271, FLAGSHIP BASE SIX    1 November 1918

[16] Woofenden, Todd A.: Hunters of the Steel Sharks (Bowdoinham, Maine, Signal Light Books, 2006.), p119.

[17] See footnote 16, File No 8-255-1   6 November 1918.

[18] See footnote 12, REPORT FROM QUEENSTOWN

[19] Rose, op. cit., pp 234ff

[20], accessed 8 March 2018.

[21] NARA, RG 45 TC-Force Commander’s Letters and TD-Admiral Sims Personal File, Entry 510, I-18, Box 643 of 1630, TC-Admiralty Conferences 1918 Folder 1. These are daily “VERY SECRET” Memoranda prepared for Sims relating to daily staff meetings at the Admiralty.

[22] Rossano, Geoffrey L.: Stalking the U-Boat – U.S. Naval Aviation in Europe During World War I (Copyright Geoffrey L Rossano; Published Gainesville, FL, University of Florida Press, 2010.), pp 78, 117, 295.

I’ll post the second half of the paper in a couple of weeks.

©2018 Thomas L Snyder

On Hospitals in Ships Redux

In 2010, I posted a piece on hospital ships. There I wrote that the first purpose-built American hospital ship was USS Relief  (AH-1), laid down in 1917. As it turns out, Relief was the first Navy hospital ship so constructed. The Army was well ahead of the Navy in this particularly nautical undertaking, as I’ll explain below.

The Navy’s first hospital ship was the legendary USS Red Rover, a sidewheeler that served the Confederacy as a barracks ship for a year before she was captured by Union forces. It was the Army that converted her to hospital use and then operated her for about a year until Congressional legislation required the transfer of the “Western Gunboat Fleet” (Red Rover actually mounted a 32 pounder gun and was expected to support military operations on the Mississippi if necessary) to the Navy. She was commissioned into the Navy on 26 December 1862, and her medical staff of doctors and nurses served with distinction until the end of the war.

Now comes the news (to me) that the truly first American purpose-built hospital ship was actually created by the Army! This revelation arrived in my inbox this morning in the form of a pretty comprehensive article in the on-line news feed gCaptainReferred to as a Hospital Transport, the ship – named after the 12th Surgeon General of the Army, J K Barnes – was described at the time as “the best adapted ship for the purpose, ever fitted up in this country” (Medical and Surgical Reporter, Vol X11 [Jan-Jul 1865], p 217). She apparently was put into service in 1864.

The Army briefly operated a hospital ship (USAHS Relief) in the Spanish American War, but none in support of the 2,000,000 doughboys who fought and served in Europe in World War I, though troops clearly were transported across the English Channel in large numbers. Navy hospital ships and Army and commercial transports brought the soldiers home. In World War II, however, the Army Transport Service had responsibility for 25 hospital ships – used mainly to transport sick and wounded troops from in-theater to rear-area hospitals or to the United States. Since then, only the Navy has operated hospital ships for the U.S. All Navy hospital ships are fully equipped to care for major surgical cases rather than as transporters – that function having been absorbed by Air Force flying ICUs and air transporters.

Worth pondering: a Navy insider tells me, though I’ve not confirmed this, that officials would like to get rid of  T-AH-19 USNS Mercy and T-AH-20 USNS Comfort with their 8 fully equipped operating suites and 1000 bed capacities, even as Mercy embarks on Pacific Partnership 18, a soft power / medical diplomacy mission to several nations in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. In this day and age of dangerous outlaw non-state and state actors, are big white ships with red crosses simply too tempting as targets?

(c) 2018 Thomas L Snyder

Medical Diplomacy Redux

This popped up in my U.S. Naval Institute newsfeed this morning:

Hospital Ship USNS Mercy Kicks Off Pacific Partnership Mission” –

From the USNI news article:

This year’s Pacific Partnership marks the 13th year of the multinational mission that was prompted by the massive destruction following a 2004 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia regions. With a heavy focus on humanitarian assistance and disaster response, the annual multilateral missions are seen as building and strengthening relationships with both allies and fledgling partners in a vast, global region regularly affected by natural disasters and civil unrest.

It looks like medical diplomacy, American style, is alive and well.